Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Race to Nowhere

Having heard about the documentary film, Race to Nowhere, first from an article in the paper and then from a client, I was ecstatic to learn that Newton North High School was showing the film this past month. My son, Alex, and I cleared our calendars so we could attend the screening. I was very glad we did!

Produced by Vicky Abeles, using the words and experiences of students across the country, their teachers, administrators, parents and other professionals who serve them, the film paints a very accurate and sad portrait of what education is like in our culture today. With all the pressure to build a resume to be successful in the job market, starting in preschool, students are overloaded with homework, pressured to take top level classes and get straight A's, while also excelling in extracurriculars, sports, and even more, lacking time for eating, sleeping, thinking or learning.

This silent epidemic touches all school-aged kids and young adults, from pre-K through graduate school, leads to stress-related illness at younger and younger ages, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicide, apathy and a mechanized, robotic approach to personhood. Because of the pressures to look good and have "everything together," on the outside, countless students suffer in silence, under the radar, until a crisis hits where things crumble from the inside out.

The ultimate prize is success, as defined by our materially addicted culture, measured by how much money you have, how big a house you live in, and how fancy a car you drive. Happiness, health and humanity are left out of the equation entirely. As one student in the film commented, "Success in America is defined by how much money you make, not by how happy you are."

And with inhumane pressures that could cause even the strongest person to eventually crumble, students are learning to take shortcuts, like cheating and taking drugs, which will ultimately lead to their collapse or the collapse of the systems that depend on them. Sadly, we have countless examples of the adult version of this behavior, with Bernie Madoff as the poster child of cheating and its costs, including the life of his son.

One of the students in the Newton North auditorium commented after the film, we have a system that is creating an economically and emotionally depressed America. Something has to change, or our race to nowhere will be the lemmings' suicidal race off the cliff. Are we frogs in the proverbial pot of boiling water or have we already died emotionally, spiritually and practically? Can we leap out of the water and keep other frogs out of the pot? Can we find a way to get grounded and keep frogs in frogponds and people in human environments? Do we need to revision and re-engineer these more healthy and natural environments, because we are so used to the boiling water, that we don't even remember how it should be?

This provocative film is a call to action, including getting together and talking with one another face to face. The film is only shown in small community settings, like the high school, rather than being distributed through the commercial film market. The purpose is to engage dialogue and thought, rather than passive viewing in our isolated lives.

I hope more and more people see the film, and join together to get to the root of the systemic issues. Our survival is at stake. As they say, our children are our future. And if we don't take action, we will lose them and our future.

Copyright 2011 Linda Marks

Greed Is A Terminal Disease

While intellectually, many of us know that anything taken to an extreme can lose its goodness, practically, our culture seems to have forgotten that this is so. While the Wall Street culture promoted the idea that greed is good, just as a person who lives on a diet of junk food will ultimately become seriously ill, too much greed for too long exacts a toll. This toll is felt by the greedy, the people taken advantage of or shut out from the food chain, and by society as a whole.

Bernie Madoff's uncontained greed not only led to his sentence of life in prison, but also to the suicide of one of his sons. Greed on Wall Street, in business, and in the political arena, has left countless people adrift, unemployed, homeless and displaced, without hope of any change in their circumstances. And the greedy who put so many people in such difficult positions turn their head the other way and watch their bank accounts grow.

We have example after example that greed is a terminal disease, and perhaps an addiction in our culture where success is measured in financial terms, not in meaning, contribution, and making a difference in the world. In his article, The Real Social Security, published in Ode Magazine, Kenyan microcredit bank managing director, Kimanthi Mutua notes that the only REAL social security is our collectiveness.

Mutua notes, "Centuries of individualism and materialism have destroyed most of this essential support structure in the West." We have no collective infrastructure to catch people when times are tough, and falling through the cracks of life is all too familiar a risk of hard times and forces beyond our control.

While Americans may look at Africans as residents of third world nations, emotionally and spiritually, America is a third world nation, or worse. The richness of daily connections with people, face to face, where people know and care for one another, cannot be made up through bonding in virtual reality. Mutua notes that in Africa, people connect in the daily reality of their lives. They naturally support each other, which builds an experience of community and compensates for the hardships of their lives."

Mutua notes as well that based on data from a World Value Survey, "most people in Africa do not report feeling less happy than people in developed nations despite being the poorest people on the planet. African is a living example of the fact that more money does not bring more happiness."

So, if we can stop looking at our own reflections in the narcissistic mirror that is so common today, perhaps we can look at ourselves through the lens of other cultures that may be more spiritually and emotionally rich than we are. As we are lost in the trance of working ourselves to death, and pursuing the American Dream, that a Psychology Today article notes has transformed into the American Nightmare, we lose sight of what really matters, and what we really need to survive.

Copyright 2011 Linda Marks

See "American Nightmare" in April 2011 issue of Psychology Today, and "The Real Social Security" by Kimanthi Mutua in the October 2007 issue of Ode Magazine for more.

Happiness Versus Well-Being

On Tuesday, March 15, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, "Is Happiness Overrated?" With positive psychology as one of today's popular buzzwords in research and media circles, who would question whether pursuing happiness might, as the WSJ article suggests, be doing us more harm than good?

It turns out that "happiness as people usually think of it--the experience of pleasure and positive feelings," is not nearly as important to physical health as meaning and purpose. Engaging in meaningful, purposeful activity creates a deeper and more impactful positive state, which is called "eudaimonic well-being," than lighter, fun, which is called "hedonic well-being." The effects of eudaimonic well-being contribute not only to better mental health and cognitive acuity but also to a longer life than focusing on achieving feelings of happiness alone.

Dr. Carol Ryff and her team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that eudaimonic well-being reduced the impact of known risk factors like low education level on some critical health indicators. "Participants with low education level and greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker of disease associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease" than those with lower levels of eudaimonic well-being, even when taking hedonic well-being into account.

Too, researchers say that focusing too much on happiness, "can actually lead to feeling less happy." All too easily, we become addicted to the "quick fix," and swim on the surface of life, leaving the deeper layers of our beings untended.

While small, fleeting pleasures, like listening to good music, enjoying a good dinner or getting a new outfit, give us a burts of good feeling, in the long term, these activities, which contribute to "hedonic well-being," do not have real staying power. The article notes that raising children, volunteering or going to graduate school "may be less pleasureable day to day," but gives us more of a sense of fulfillment, "of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run."

Another important principal is everything in moderation. It is not human to be happy all the time, nor is it necessarily desireable. Life brings challenges, loss and hard times. To be able to feel through these different experiences is critical to being human. Being too unhappy too often is not good for us. And being more at peace more often is indeed more enjoyable. Yet, in a culture that has become far too narcissistic, "fixating on being happy in itself can become a psychological burden," reflects Dr. Ryff.